From the New York Observer
HISTORY OF THE INDIAN BILL
At the close of the last session of Congress, an act passed for the removal of the Indians, which was deemed, by nearly half the representatives of the people in the national legislature, to be not only unwise and impolitic, but in a high degree oppressive to the Indians, and disgraceful to our country. In its words, it was fair and specious; but, in its known tendency and designed effected, it was a deliberate forfeiture of the most solemn engagements, a surrender of the weak to the will of the strong, a refusal to redeem pledges of protection, which had been given in the most explicit manner, for a valuable consideration, and which had been constantly repeated for more than half a century.
Volume 1, ewed in this light, the act in question is one of the most important and one of the most injurious measures, which have ever been adopted by the government of the United States. It is thus regarded by many of our best informed and most judicious citizens; and, in the opinion of the writer of these paragraphs, that it would be thus regarded by ninety-nine in a hundred of the whole American people, if party spirit and private interest could be excluded for all connection with the subject.
While the measure was in agitation, during the whole of last winter and spring, the public was alive to all the discussions respecting it; but so imperfectly were the debates and proceedings of Congress reported in the papers, that little more than the final result is known by the great body of intelligent men, in all parts of the United States. All who were at Washington during the debates on the Indian Bill, and for some time before, must be aware, that persons at a distance can have but a very imperfect conception of the progress of the measure, and of the strenuous efforts which were made on both sides. It has seemed to me of considerable importance, that a brief history should be given of the preparations for the question of the removal of the Indians, the debates upon that question, and of other things, which had an intimate connection with the decision of it. Having been in circumstances, which enabled me to observe what was passing, I have concluded to attempt such a history, and to send it for publication to the editors of the New York Observer.
For several years past, it has been evident, that the affairs of the Southern Indians were approaching to a crisis. The increase of white population in the vicinity of the Indian territories would of itself lead to efforts to acquire more Indian lands. But the rapid improvement of the Cherokees in civilization, and their taking measures to render their civil government more stable, caused the people of Georgia to apprehend that the Indians would so thoroughly understand their rights and their interests, as that it would soon be impossible to purchase their country. Hence from 1820 to 1827, efforts were constantly made by the authorities of Georgia to obtain all the remaining lands of the Creeks and Cherokees, which lay within what are called the chartered limits of that State. The lands of the Creeks were obtained though with difficulty, and by, a process of bribery, fraud, ungenerous importunity, and unmanly threats, an impartial history of which would confer no credit on our country. The Cherokees positively refused to cede another foot of land. With them the business hung in suspense, during the period above mentioned. Lands had been obtained from the Indians, in time of peace, by treaty only. The general government alone was authorized to treat, being invested with that exclusive power by the federal constitution. These principles were perfectly well established, and had been implicitly acknowledged by Georgia in her public acts, times almost innumerable.
In December, 1827, the legislature of Georgia asserted the claims of that state to the Cherokee country, in a different manner, and placed it on different grounds from any thing which had been previously attempted. It was now discovered, that the Cherokees had no title to their lands; that they were mere tenants at will; and that Georgia might take possession of it whenever she pleased. A long report containing these doctrines, was adopted by both branches of the legislature, approved by the Governor, and by him officially communicated, to the President of the United States.
Nothing material was done on this subject, during the last year of Mr. Adams' administration; but, on the 18th of April 1829 the Secretary of War addressed a letter to the Cherokee Deputation, in which he told them, that Indian nations residing within the chartered limits of any state were subject to the legislation of that state; and that the President had no power to protect them from it. This annunciation was entirely new to the Cherokees. It was, moreover, entirely inconsistent with the whole intercourse between the Cherokees and the United States; during a period of more than half a century.
As the last session of Congress approached, a petition was prepared by the Cherokee Council, in which the justice of the United States was invoked, and protection was claimed against the encroachments of Georgia. In December, 1828, the legislature of that state had passed an act to extend the laws of Georgia over the Cherokees residing in that portion of their own country, which is comprehended within the chartered limits of Georgia. The act was to take effect on the first day of June, 1830, and was doubtless intended to convince the Indians, that it would be impossible for them to live on the land of their fathers. No measures like this had ever been adopted by any legislature, from the first settlement of this continent by the English to the present day. It has recently been said, and most impudently repeated, that all the old states of the Union have passed laws of a similar character. The assertion is groundless. There is no authority for saying that Massachusetts, or Virginia, or any other state previously to this act of Georgia, ever extended its laws over a tribe of Indians residing on lands derived from their ancestors, and never forfeited nor sold. Nor is there any instance of a state, previously to the act of Georgia, having claimed the right of driving peaceable Indians from their hereditary possessions, and dividing these possessions among the whites. Since the act of Georgia, the states of Alabama and Mississippi have adopted the same principles, and with a view to the same result. In December last, the legislature of Georgia passed another law, containing several most obnoxious provisions, which was also to take effect on the first day of the following June, a day which is now past.
The petition of the Cherokee Council was presented to Congress at the commencement of the session; and, soon after, the petitions of the Cherokee people, subscribed by them as individuals, were forwarded, till more that nine-tenths of the adult males (four thousand out of a population of sixteen thousand) had actually signed their names, written in their own character, to these petitions; though it is but a very few years since their language was reduced to writing. Besides protesting against the claims of Georgia, they expressed the utmost unwillingness to leave the lands which they had inherited from their fathers, and which had been so often guaranteed to them by the United States.
During the latter part of last year, the newspapers very extensively admitted discussions respecting the rights of the Indians. A considerable portion of the public began to feel alarmed, lest the government and people of the United States should be guilty of gross oppression, and of a palpable violation of the national faith. In New-York, Philadelphia, Boston, and many other places, public meetings of citizens were held, at which resolutions and petitions to Congress were adopted. These petitions defended the rights of the Indians, and interceded with the government in their behalf. In some of them strong and urgent language was used.
The memorial from a most respectable meeting in New York was objected to by the representatives of Georgia, as not sufficiently decorous toward the State. The petitioners were assailed with opprobrious epithets; and an attempt was made to brow-beat all, who should appear as friends of the Indians. A similar attempt was made in the Senate; but in both instances, it signally failed.
The Constitution of the Committees on Indian affairs was such, as to give a great advantage to those states in which efforts were making to remove the Indians. In each committee, a majority of members were from states directly interested in the acquisition of Indian lands. Georgia had a member in each committee; and one of her Senators who held this highly responsible station, had been the Governor of that State, during all the controversy respecting the Creek treaty; and had manifested the most violent temper in his intercourse with the general government, on that subject. Yet to him was assigned the duty of devising measures in which Georgia was directly interested, and which could not but affect the rights and interests of numerous tribes of our dependent allies.
About the middle of the session, these committees mad elaborate reports. The most remarkable trait in both documents is, that no question was fairly met. It was known by the writers, that the Indians were supposed to have certain well defined claims; that these claims were alleged to be supported by numerous treaty stipulations, and to rest on the most obvious principles of immutable justice. Yet no fair and full quotation is made of articles of treaties, on which the Cherokees rely. The impartial reader is forced to the conclusion, that the question of Indian rights could not be fairly met without abandoning the position taken by the government. The question was not met at all. The reports of the committees contain much sophistical reasoning, hard to understood and difficult to be analyzed, which was intended to lead to the following conclusions, viz. that civilized men, have a better right to a country occupied by uncivilized men, than the occupants themselves have; that therefore the potentates of Europe had a right to apportion this continent among their subjects without any regard to the possession of the natives; that the treaties with the natives were a sort of legislation of the whites over them; that the treaties of the United States with the Cherokees were incompatible with previous obligations of the United States to Georgia; that therefore the Cherokees have no right to their country; and that our guaranty of their country to them is fulfilled fairly and honorable if we help them to remove from it.
The reports represented also, that, the removal of the Indians would be greatly for their benefit; that their condition is extremely wretched, and daily becoming more so; that a country could be guaranteed to them beyond the Mississippi, from which they would never be driven, and where they would not be crowded by the whites; and that, in their new country, it would be easy to carry on the system of improvements, which some of the tribes had commenced. It is difficult to say, whether the error is greater in the reasoning, or in the statement of pretended facts. The whole case was wretchedly perverted and distorted, and it is truly a melancholy consideration that so much art, sophistry, and perverse ingenuity should have been used to get the advantage of weak and dependent tribes, who had no accredited agent to speak for them in our national halls, and whose dearest rights were about to be taken from them without witnesses, and without a hearing.
It was expected all winter that the debate on this subject would be of a most interesting character. A great number of members of the House of Representatives prepared themselves, with more than ordinary labor, to speak upon the question. Yet the discussion did not commence till the 6th day of April, when the bill reported to the Senate was taken up in that body for consideration.
By some friends of the Indians it was thought unhappy, that the discussion had not begun in the House of Representatives. Human power are not competent to decide, in such a case as the present, which of two courses would have been attended with fewest difficulties. Numerous events, connected with the passing of the Indian Bill, are well suited to teach a reflecting mind how dependent we often are, upon things entirely beyond human control.
I propose, in future communication, to describe the debates on the Indian Bill, and to mention several interesting particulars connected with its final passage.